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Red Bulls Tactical Sips: DC United

What to watch for on the field as old rivals come to town

SOCCER: JUL 31 MLS - New England Revolution at New York Red Bulls
Fabio has struggled in the air recently, increasing the need for Gerhard Struber to find new approaches to the final third.
Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Welcome to Tactical Sips, a semi-regular pre-match post featuring taurine-spiked breakdowns of the upcoming game.

The New York Red Bulls are back after a long and perhaps welcome international break. The coaching staff had time to make some tweaks, plans, and even a new addition to the squad. What lies ahead is an absolutely brutal stretch of 14 matches in less than two months. Eight points out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, Gerhard Struber will need every possible ounce of magic to pull multiple rabbits out of his hat.

The first opponent on the journey to an unknown destination begins with a visit from rivals D.C. United. The capital club occupies the final playoff spot, enjoying back-and-forth form under new manager Hernán Losada. This is not the most important match of the season, but the opportunity to gain ground in a true six-pointer cannot be overstated. Too many results have been frittered away and time is running short. The Red Bulls have no choice but to become the best version of the literary Hare, an illogical and ill-fitting role for this group (as well as the second Leporidae metaphor in this post).

Let’s dive into the shallow depths. Here are three things to watch.

SORT OF UNRELIABLE

As expected under a new manager, multiple versions of D.C. United could show up. There is the team that lost to Atlanta United, the group that was blown out by Nashville SC, and the dangerous fighter that took down the Philadelphia Union. Losada has impressed with the way he has gotten his team to press and attack in an up-tempo style, but some upgrades are needed, which points to next season as the real breakthrough.

With 1.45 goals per 90, D.C. United is in the league’s lower-middle class, roughly where they should be having scored 34 goals on an xG of 35.4. The main attacking threat is the ever-advantageous and multi-faceted Ola Kamara, putting up an almost impossibly efficient 12 goals on 13 shots-on-target and 29 total shots. By comparison, Edison Flores and Julian Gressel have each registered 31 shots but combined for a single goal.

There have been some minor changes which could pay long-term dividends and make D.C. a nightmare in the playoffs.. Perhaps in recognition of his best usage, Gressel has been shooting a lot less frequently, instead focusing on distribution. Joseph Lowery named the 27-year-old wingback as one of the league’s top-five playmakers, thriving in transition with a variety of “different types of incisive passes.” Former Red Bull Salzburg attacker Yordy Reyna is also becoming a factor with four goals since the beginning of August.

INTERNATIONAL BREAK CREATIVITY

Despite many teams playing during the international break, the New York Red Bulls was not one of them. While a fixture during that time would have eased the strain of an increasingly compacted schedule, there are some benefits in having a whole two weeks to prepare for the next opponent. D.C. United should be fully scouted, with any and all weaknesses uncovered and avenues of destruction prepared.

The other benefit is that the manager has the opportunity to tinker. Struber is a creative type, always looking to add new wrinkles to his team. Based on conventional wisdom, the Red Bulls are going to do something surprising during this match. Perhaps a player will be deployed in a new position or occupying a different role in the tactics. Maybe a unique set piece will be unveiled, beguiling D.C. United with all sorts of dummies, runs, picks, and subterfuge.

There has to be something though. Two weeks in the middle of the season is too long of a period to stand still. Maybe the innovation will instead be the return of Daniel Royer to the starting lineup or Youba Diarra on the field, which would certainly provide a new dimension to a team growing increasingly limited in scope.

CROSSES, PROBABLY

In the last five matches, D.C. United has surrendered 11 goals. Seven of those have involved the failure to properly defend or clean up crosses, which, in theory, should be something that the Red Bulls are able to exploit. As is traditional, Losada likes to use a fullback as the third member of his defensive line in the 3-5-2 formation. While useful in possession, this can sometimes create a mismatch when defending headers and winning aerial duels, which has manifested in opponents thriving at the far post.

Ideally, the Red Bulls should thrive, particularly with the fullbacks making crosses from zones 13 and 15 (the wide ones diagonal to the box). Despite playing centrally for most of the year, Tom Edwards is tied for the team lead in completed crosses with nine, alongside John Tolkin and Andrew Gutman. His return to the wing should refocus the attack and engage the strikers in a different way than the kick-and-chasers to which they have been reduced.

Maybe receiving the ball in a more advantageous area will allow Fábio to improve upon his league-worst aerial duel numbers, currently a record of 44 won and 103 lost (29.9%). Second-worst is Real Salt Lake’s Damir Kreiclach with 81 won and 81 lost, in case you were pondering. You can’t fault the big guy’s enthusiasm for chasing and throwing himself into every challenge, particularly when Klimala is an even worse 17 won and 51 lost (25.0%), although the two perform different roles.

While winning the ball is the preferred outcome, causing chaos is also an appropriate result but only if midfield reinforcements arrive. If the Red Bulls’ attack is centered on two guys chasing with little help or capitalization on the mistakes of the opponent, then their effort is meaningless and the statistics will continue to go unchallenged by reality. Against D.C. United, the entire team needs to push forward and take advantage of bad defending on crosses, when the ball is in the air and after hitting the ground.

What tactical storylines are you expecting to play out in the match? Let us know in the comment section.